Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Mona in the Promised Land - by Gish Jen

I read this novel over about a 10-week period as part of a weekly book discussion, along with some students at the University. The story tells of Mona, a Chinese American teenager growing up in Scarshill, New York in the 1960s. Mona begins to volunteer at a suicide prevention hotline that is run by a local Jewish Temple, and decides to convert to Judiaism, much to her Catholic parents' chagrin. The students in my discussion group, who were all Latin American, were surprised to find so many themes in this work that resonated with them. For instance it is universally true that teenagers will have conflicts with their parents.

Libraries didn't play any real role in this book, but there were a few passing mentions of them. Mona's best friend is Barbara whose family moves to a huge house with six bedrooms, and among other amenities has "a library with chestnut paneling".What home would be complete without books, after all?

Mona is quite bright, and does exceptionally well in school. This leads some of her peers to steer clear of her ("Mona has never admitted how much she reads, figuring, Why act brainier?"). However, the handsome Seth, a pseudo-bohemian/pseudo-intellectual is very interested in spending time with Mona. He is also very interested in spending time with Barbara, and deflowers each in turn. Foreplay involves impressing them with deep philosophical discussions of Kant. "Mona can tell Barbara feels left out by the fact that she's even checked that Kant book out of the library to see how it ends." Seth eventually "begins to share with Barbara his synopses and hypotheses and analyses, his assumptions and suppositions. Whereupon to Mona's confoundment, Barbara goes intellectual."

Throw into the mix the charming Andy Kaplan who everyone wants to be connected to although "for a long time he was just like anybody else, only shorter...[b]ut after he suddenly grew eleven inches, he became the sort of guy  with whom people like to claim some connection. His mom worked his their mom on the library committee. They used to be on his paper route. Even Seth claims to play chess with Andy now and then..."

Barbara, Mona, and Seth spend a lot of time getting high, eating, drinking and "rapping". Their discussions sometimes question whose oppression is the worst: Chinese immigrants, blacks, or Jews. Contemplating history as well as current events they recognize "the auction blocks and the Ku Klux Klan and the fuss over getting even a library card..."

There is one rather convoluted library metaphor. I had to read it several times to get it. Seth and Mona, in trying to help a friend, ultimately feel betrayed. Mona considers how Seth perceives this:
It is as if he is just discovering that he grew up an only child, which in a way, he did. His step-brothers were all buy out of the house by the time he came along; and what with his interests, he could practically have been a Old World scholar boy, the kind with cuff links and green skin and no appetite. Even now, she can see him with a piano, and an illuminated globe, and a sliding wooden ladder that he really does need, to get to all his books. They one day: Enter a group of playmates. And when they leave, the library is a whole different place.
I think my favorite library mention though, was reading that Barbara's parents decided to take a last minute June vacation, even though "it mean[t] doing two research papers without a library." What were they thinking?!

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